Catching up with ‘Barb & Star’ as the cult comedy brings its shimmer to Hulu

This article appeared in Los Angeles Times, published on July 9, 2021. Interview by Jen Yamato.

Romance. Intrigue. Killer mosquitoes. Culottes. One movie in 2021 had it all: “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” a delightfully bizarre pastel fantasia about two unsinkable Midwestern BFFs on vacay in Florida written, produced by and starring “Bridesmaids” duo Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig.

To many who found the absurdly earnest buddy comedy when it first hit premium VOD earlier this year, “Barb & Star” was a genuine surprise — a glimmer of joy in tough times, serving up a cinematic scorpion bowl of big-hearted silliness in matching perms and resort wear.

Set to open in theaters last summer, then delayed by Lionsgate due to the pandemic — and ultimately moved to a Valentine’s Day weekend PVOD debut — “Barb & Star’s” roundabout path to release was a bittersweet one for its makers. Learning that it gave audiences sorely needed cheer during the pandemic became a silver lining. (If you missed it the first time around, you’re in luck: The gals are now streaming on Hulu. Well timed, as the comedy recently popped up on several lists of the best movies of the year so far.)

“Knowing that people did find a little escape with this movie and some joy in it makes us so happy,” said Wiig, joining longtime friend and collaborator Mumulo over video chat. “Comedies are supposed to bring joy, and Annie and I — that’s part of our M.O., really. It was a very nice response that we weren’t expecting.”

Directed by Josh Greenbaum in his narrative feature debut, the film follows matchy-matchy middle-aged besties Barb (Mumolo) and Star (Wiig), who find themselves unemployed when the Jennifer Convertibles store they work in goes out of business. Daring to try something new, they embark on the vacation of their dreams to exotic Vista del Mar, Fla.

There, they become involved with a man of mystery named Edgar (Jamie Dornan), start living their best lives and inadvertently tangle with a supervillainess with a vendetta named Sharon Gordon Fisherman (also played by Wiig, to “Austin Powers”-esque perfection) who’s planning to rain death and destruction upon the beach town and its banana boat-riding denizens.

Matching Wiig and Mumolo’s energy onscreen is a stellar supporting ensemble including Vanessa Bayer, Damon Wayans Jr., Michael Hitchcock, Wendy McLendon-Covey, Phyllis Smith, Rose Abdoo, Fortune Feimster, Andy Garcia, Reba McEntire and newcomer Reyn Doi.

There are musical numbers, a Celine Dion-fueled bender, an extended riff between Barb and Star about an imaginary water spirit named Trish, and talking animals. But not as many as Wiig and Mumolo originally planned. “You have to pick your crazy,” said Mumolo.

The longtime friends and collaborators, who are set to reteam to script a film about Cinderella’s evil stepsisters for Disney, among other projects they’re developing together, logged on during lockdown to talk about Barb, Star and the film they hope will keep finding its audience as the world opens back up.

For folks who haven’t yet seen it, how do you describe who Barb and Star are, their friendship and what awaits in Vista Del Mar?

Annie Mumolo: Barb and Star are two people at a point in their lives where they have gotten very comfortable, almost to the point where they’re risking being stagnant. They’ve stopped taking risks. They don’t realize it but they’ve stopped really living — and they’re given this opportunity to step out of their comfort zone. And when they do, they have a nice, surprising adventure.

Kristen Wiig: We’ve been writing together for years and even at the Groundlings, in all of our sketches in retrospect, we really have an affinity toward middle-aged women who look similar and have some sort of very specific hairdo. It’s this generation of women that we not only relate to and gravitate toward, it’s also this unrepresented portion of the population. They are our aunts and our moms and these women that we know.

Mumolo: They’ve kind of become invisible. They’re not on TikTok. They see everything through this positive lens. And they appreciate the little things that we take for granted. But these types of characters we’ve done since we were in our 20s, and now that we’re almost that age we realize that they are more like us, they are versions of us, almost like a wish fulfillment thing.

Did you have real Barbs and Stars in your life to draw on?

Mumolo: They’re an amalgam of a lot of different women that have been in our lives. My mom has this incredible group of female friends. They call themselves “the Babes.” When I call my mom, sometimes I hear like a motor and she’s like, “We’re out on Barb’s boat. Gotta go. With the Babes.” They have survived a lot together, and they go and they embrace life together. And it’s really inspiring! There’s some of that in there, but it’s also, you know, the receptionist at my dentist. It’s a lot of different people combined.

Barb and Star’s journey to the Vista Del Mar resort involves their search for what they call their “shimmer” — it’s the idea that as women of a certain age, they’re looking to reclaim something that they’ve lost along the way. Why was the shimmer such a resonant idea?

Mumolo: Well, you have to fight for your shimmer. That was important to us too. There are things that happen that make you want to run and hide or just shut down — or you have a choice you can make, to fight that. And I think they’re at one of those big crossroads. That part was very important to us because it’s like, which way are you going to go? If you take risks and fight the urge to hide away and curl up into a ball, what possibilities could await you?

Wiig: I think everyone, like 100% of the people in the world, can relate to that feeling of searching for something. There’s something about this, I guess we’ll call them your “later in life years” — you don’t have that many more of these milestones. And then you feel like, well, now what? Am I just supposed to live? This is it? But living may mean starting over, or trying something new or going on a vacation. And there is this complacency that I feel like some people have in these later years, because it’s not normal to be like, “Oh, I’m 45 — I’m going to go to Egypt with my girlfriends.”

Mumolo: My dad calls them the “I can hardly waits.” He says there came a point when he turned 40 and he felt like all of his “I can hardly waits” were over, and then what do you do? I can hardly wait to get married, I can hardly wait to have kids, whatever your I can hardly wait is. You go through that phase where you think you’re doing all those things on your checklist that’s supposed to make you complete. And life just doesn’t go that way.

There’s also a refreshing power in how Barb and Star either never cared about what other people think of them, or have reached a point in their lives where they don’t care.

Mumolo: It’s a very freeing quality.

Wiig: That’s why we like playing them too, because nothing affects us. When you’re in these characters, someone could just insult you and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, thank you!” I like to think they were always like that and felt alone in the world, and when they met each other, it was like, “Oh my gosh, my other half is here.” And then they walked through the world together. They’re not dumb. Well, they’re a little oblivious, but they have the best intentions and the purest hearts.

Mumolo: They don’t even think that way so they wouldn’t think anyone else would think those negative things or be judgmental and critical.

You’ve been friends for decades and writing partners for many years. What’s the secret to your friendship, and beyond that, your creative partnership?

Wiig: The obvious answers are honesty and respect and loyalty and general genuine love for each other. I also think that because we are creative partners, we’re creatively married. You connect with people that you are on the same wavelength with anyway. And because we speak the same language and we’ve been writing with each other for so long, there’s this bond that we couldn’t break even if we wanted to. Not to mention that this business is kind of crazy, and when you can find those people that you can huddle up with, you stick with those people.

Mumolo: It’s a chemistry thing that is also just there or not there. For us, it started with that. But this business is treacherous and we walk through it together and it’s very comforting. We get each other through with that foundation.

Wiig: Being like-minded in this business and in life is rare, because people just see things so differently. And we, for some reason, just see all that comes at us in the same way.

Sharon Gordon Fisherman is a great villain with a radically mundane villain name. Where did she come from?

Wiig: We had toyed around with a few names when we shot it. We tried different names. We tried the idea of, what if we just don’t ever say her name? And then it was like, what are we going to do for the credits? Do we just put in, “Villain”?

It works, though, because Sharon is just a girl who’s been through a lot.

Wiig: She’s just like other girls.

The degree to which “Barb & Star” is actually deeply and beautifully weird feels like a miracle. Was that weirdness hard to fight for?

Wiig: It depends on who you’re doing the movie for. My hope is that especially with comedies, and I guess it’s true for all genres, if studios do trust the filmmakers and the writers, you get the vision of those creative people. I always say you can think the comedy out of a script really fast. You can look at something and go, “Eh, do we need this? Is this going to be funny?” But if it’s funny and you want to tell the story of this writer or you want this director to be that director, sometimes you just have to let them do the thing that they do because they’re never going to get that otherwise.

You can note creativity out of a script. You can note the funny out of a script. With the Trish run on the plane, going through the script any studio would just put a big X on those pages and be like, “This is like four pages of dialogue of them talking about Trish — we don’t really need this.” But it always got a laugh at table reads. And it was funny! Sometimes you just have to go, but yeah — it’s funny.

Mumolo: There’s a risk with comedies because people want to make them into a formula, like there’s a formula for it. There’s this new “rule” that we just learned, that your comedy script can’t be over 110 pages. And that makes no sense because in traditional screenwriting 101, a regular script is 120 pages and you give or take some of those pages. Our “Bridesmaids” script was longer than that. You shoot what you have, and then you edit, and it’s a very musical, rhythmic thing.

Wiig: If you have a script that’s 125 pages and it’s hilarious and they say you need to cut 15 pages, you’re changing the whole rhythm of something. This joke won’t work because now it’s too close to this other joke. If someone tells a story at a dinner party and it’s five minutes long, and it is the funniest thing you’ve ever heard and that person’s using voices and you are just so engaged and they’re like, great! Tell the story again, but tell it in three minutes. It’s just not going to be —

Mumolo: Raw, musical, spontaneous. … We did have other talking animals. They were taken out.

Wiig: We did actually get that note that maybe we should hone in and make the ones that we had really special.

Mumolo: There was a bear family.

Wiig: There was a squirrel in the very beginning that was just kind of waving. There was a dog bartender, remember?

Mumolo: Oh, yes. He was a really good bartender. He was Spuds McKenzie. We had a lot where we went into a bar at the really s—y hotel and we didn’t know what to do because he was the bartender. We were like, oh we were trying to order.

Wiig: The bar was called Nightmares.

Mumolo: You have to pick your crazy, which is why it’s good we did get sort of brought down from Mars.

Wiig: Yeah, we needed to be reined in a little.